Sexual abuse Who is affected
Any child can be affected by sexual abuse. But they may be more at risk if they have:
- a history of previous sexual abuse
- a disability
- a disrupted home life
- experienced other forms of abuse.
Young or disabled children may not be able to tell someone what’s happening, or may not understand that they’re being abused.
Risk factors for child sexual abuse
Both boys and girls can be sexually abused. Research suggests that girls are at a greater risk of being sexually abused by a family member. Boys are at a higher risk of being abused by a stranger (Maikovich-Fong and Jafee, 2010).
Risk factors for all child abuse and neglect
There’s still a lot we don’t know about why abuse happens, but research has highlighted some similarities among children who have been abused or neglected. These similarities, or risk factors, help us identify children who may be at increased risk of abuse and neglect.
Some risk factors are common across all types of abuse and neglect. But they don’t mean that abuse will definitely happen. A child who doesn’t have any of these risk factors could be abused and a child with multiple risk factors may never experience abuse or neglect. But we do know that having one or more of these issues can increase the risk of harm.
Children who are at risk
Disabled children are over three times more likely to be abused or neglected than non-disabled children (Jones et al, 2012).
Some disabled children may not understand that what's happening to them is abuse and that it's wrong. Even if they do, they might not be able to ask for help. If a child is being abused by someone who looks after them or who they rely on to meet their needs it can be even harder for them to speak out or protect themselves.
Parents and professionals might mistake signs that a child is being abused or neglected as part of a child's impairment. And those working with disabled children may not be trained to spot the signs of abuse and neglect.
Children and families who feel isolated or without support due to a limited number of accessible services, may not know who to turn to to get help.
Parents who are abusive or neglectful might excuse their behaviour, blaming it on the difficulties of caring for a disabled child. Professionals focused on supporting parents to meet the needs relating to their child's disability may overlook parenting behaviours that are not good enough.
Professionals working in child protection might not have the specialised skills to accurately assess or understand a disabled child's needs, or to communicate with them properly.
Read our research report: 'We have the right to be safe': protecting disabled children from abuse.
Most children who are in care live safely but a small number do experience harm. There are a number of risk factors related to being in care which can make children more vulnerable to abuse and neglect.
Children who have been abused or neglected in the past are more likely to experience further abuse than children who haven’t been abused or neglected (Finkelhor, Ormrod, and Turner, 2007). This is known as revictimisation.
Children who are being abused or neglected are also likely to be experiencing another form of abuse at the same time (Finkelhor, 2008). This is known as polyvictimisation.
There don’t appear to be links between ethnic groups and child abuse or neglect.
But children from black and mixed ethnic backgrounds are over-represented in the care system and in the children in need statistics. Children from Asian backgrounds are under-represented.
This may be a result of a variety of issues including:
- racial discrimination
- language barriers
- community and cultural norms and practices, such as female genital mutilation or harsh physical discipline
- inadequate or inappropriate services
- no action being taken for fear of upsetting cultural norms.
Why sexual abuse happens
We don't fully understand the causes of sexually abusive behaviour towards children.
The reasons why someone would sexually abuse a child are wide-ranging and complex. But we can broadly group them as:
Sexual drive is a deep-seated human urge similar to the desire to eat. Some sexual abusers are paedophiles, which means they have a primary sexual interest in children who haven't reached puberty. Most child sex offenders aren't paedophiles, but it's a term that a lot of people use frequently and often inaccurately.
Abusers may have gone through problems growing up. For example, they might have had problems forming a healthy bond, or attachment with their parents or carers.
They could also have experienced a troubled family environment such as domestic abuse, mental health problems or drug and alcohol misuse. Because of this, some abusers may not have any understanding of what is appropriate behaviour towards a child . And they might have developed the desire to have power or control over others.
While it's true that some sexual abusers will have been abused themselves as children, it isn't the case that being sexually abused makes it more likely that someone will abuse others.
Child sexual abuse can also be motivated by money, for example in cases of child sexual exploitation.
These factors alone do not predict sex offending.
Potential abusers might never abuse a child unless they have a willingness and an opportunity to act. Some abusers may also have to convince themselves that the abuse isn't causing harm and that the victim wants the sexual contact (Finkelhor, 1984).
We have a growing evidence base about interventions that work to prevent child sexual abuse. One vital area is services available to help people at risk of committing sexual abuse to stop them making the decision to offend and to people at risk of re-offending.
Witnessing or experiencing domestic abuse is a form of child abuse.
But children living in homes where there is domestic abuse are also likely to experience other abuse and neglect.
The impact of hearing or witnessing domestic violence can be very traumatic for a child and result in emotional or psychological abuse (Cleaver, Unell and Aldgate, 2011).
Research has also shown a link between domestic abuse and child physical abuse or child sexual abuse (Hester et al, 2007).
Not all parents who drink or take drugs harm their children, but children living with parents with alcohol or drug problems can be at more risk of harm and neglect.
Drug or alcohol problems can leave parents unable to care for their children or provide the practical and emotional support they need.
Being abused or neglected as a child doesn’t mean that someone will go on to harm others.
But a lot of the people who abuse or neglect children have experienced abuse themselves.
Because the effects of child abuse or neglect can last well into adulthood, some parents who were abused as children struggle to provide safe and appropriate care for their own children.
Just because a parent has learning disabilities or learning difficulties it doesn’t mean they can’t be a great mum or dad. But some parents can struggle to understand what they need to do to provide appropriate care for their child. In some cases, this can lead to a child being neglected.
However, research shows that helping parents to identify and understand their child’s needs can reduce the risk of a child being neglected (Cleaver, Unell, and Aldgate, 2011).
Most parents or carers with a mental health problem give their children the love, care and support they need to thrive. But when parents are ill themselves, they may struggle to look after their children the way they are able to when they are well. For families without strong support networks, this can result in children having to take on extra responsibilities, such as caring for other family members.
Research has also highlighted that some parental mental health problems (such as suicidal or self-harming behaviour, psychopathy or anxiety) could place children at risk of abuse or neglect. It is a common feature in serious child abuse cases.
Mental illness in the perinatal period, just before and just after birth, is known to interrupt healthy parent-child bonding, referred to as “attachment” (Jütte at al, 2014).
Families under pressure
All families come under pressure from time to time. But increased or continued stress can seriously affect how well a parent can look after their child.
Research shows that parents:
- with a low income are more likely to feel chronically stressed than parents with higher incomes
- living in poorer neighbourhoods have high stress levels.
Living in poverty
Children who grow up in poverty might:
- live in a poorly maintained, unsafe or temporary home
- have to move often due to repeat evictions
- have disruptive neighbours.
Someone who is being abused may feel unable to leave their abusive partner and their home.
Housing worries on top of money worries can put a lot of stress on parents. This can stop them being able to provide the practical and emotional support that children need.
Poor housing and multiple moves are common features in serious child abuse cases.
Research has found that children living in the most deprived neighbourhoods have a greater chance of being on a child protection plan or being taken into care than children in the least deprived areas (Jütte at al, 2014).
There's also a link between physical discipline, stress and lower socio-economic groups.
Lack of support
Support from family, friends, neighbours or the wider community can give parents the resources and emotional support they need to help keep their child safe. But sometimes parents don't have this support. This might be because they live in an isolated area or because they have language difficulties or cultural differences.
Sometimes the services they need just aren’t available or they aren’t able to access them. This can put children at a higher risk of harm and research has found that there are clear links between social isolation and child abuse or neglect (Jütte at al, 2014).
What research tells us about adult sex offenders
The majority of child sexual abuse is committed by male abusers, according to NSPCC research (Radford et al, 2011) and criminal statistics. Other research suggests women could be responsible for up to 5% of sexual offences committed against children (Bunting, 2005). Abuse by females is almost certainly under-reported. And research into female offenders has been hindered by the belief that women don’t behave this way towards children (Ford, 2006).
Child abuse is committed by men, women, teenagers and other children. There isn't one 'type' of person.
Offenders come from all parts of society, and all backgrounds.
Contrary to the popular image, abusers usually seem quite normal to other people. In many cases friends, relatives and co-workers find it hard to believe that someone they know has abused a child.
But it's more likely for a child to be sexually abused by someone they know, like a relative, a peer, a family friend or a person in a position of trust, rather than a stranger.
Because so much abuse goes undisclosed and unreported, the majority of perpetrators in our communities aren't known to the authorities.
Most children who've been sexually abused were abused by someone they know. It could be a member of their family or a friend. And in some cases by an adult who has sought out and targeted them as a potential victim.
Abusers look for weak spots in a family, a community or an organisation to gain unsupervised access to children. As well as targeting potential victims and planning abuse, they will often start grooming the child, the child’s family and the child’s environment.
- Inappropriate relationships
An older abuser has some kind of power over their victim. This could be physical, emotional or financial, and in many cases the victim will believe that they have a sincere or loving relationship with their abuser.
- The “boyfriend” model
This often involves the abuser and victim entering into an almost conventional relationship which involves exchanging gifts, and other normal dating activities. Sometimes, the abuser will go on to manipulate the victim into taking part in sexual acts with other people. This is a common model for peer abuse.
- Organised exploitation and trafficking
Children are abused by more than one adult as part of a network that may involve the movement of victims into and across the country, as well as exchanging images of child abuse.
What you can do
Support our research
Research like this helps keep children safe from abuse – but we can’t do it without our generous supporters.
Work or volunteer with children and families?
Visit NSPCC Learning for information, resources and training to help you safeguard and protect children and young people across the UK.
Bunting, L. (2005) Females who sexually offend against children: responses of the child protection and criminal justice systems. London: NSPCC.
Cleaver, H., Unell, I. and Aldgate, J. (2011) Children's needs: parenting capacity: child abuse: parental mental illness, learning disability, substance misuse, and domestic violence (PDF). London: The Stationery Office (TSO).
Dagon, D. (2012) Preventing sexual exploitation. Children and Young People Now, 6-19 March: 36.
Elliot, M., Browne, K. and Kilcoyne, J. (1995). Child sexual abuse prevention: what offenders tell us. Child Abuse and Neglect, 19(5): 579-594.
Finkelhor, D. (1984) Child sexual abuse: new theory and research. New York: Free Press.
Finkelhor, D. (2008) Childhood victimization: violence, crime, and abuse in the lives of young people. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Finkelhor, D., Ormrod, R.K. and Turner, H.A. (2007) Re-victimization patterns in a national longitudinal sample of children and youth. Child abuse and neglect, 31(5): 479-502.
Ford, H. (2006) Women who sexually abuse children. Chichester: Wiley.
Hester, M. et al. (2007) Making an impact: children and domestic violence: a reader. London: Jessica Kingsley.
Jones, L. et al (2012) Prevalence and risk of violence against children with disabilities: a systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies. Lancet 380(9845): 899-907.
Jütte, S. et al (2014) How safe are our children? 2014. London: NSPCC.
Leonard, M. (2010) 'I did what I was directed to do but he didn't touch me': the impact of being a victim of internet offending. Journal of Sexual Aggression, 16(2): 249-256.
Maikovich-Fong, A. and Jaffee, S. (2010) Sex differences in childhood sexual abuse characteristics and victims' emotional and behavioural problems: findings from a national sample of youth. Child Abuse and Neglect, 34(6): 429–437.
Mariathasan, J. (2009) Children talking to ChildLine about sexual abuse. London: NSPCC.
Owen, C. and Statham, J. (2009) Disproportionality in child welfare: prevalence of black and ethnic minority children within 'looked after' and 'children in need' populations and on child protection registers in England (PDF). London: Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF).
Pemberton, C. (2011) Disturbing signs. Community Care, 1870: 16-17.
Radford, L. et al (2011) Child abuse and neglect in the UK today. London: NSPCC.